Looking beyond the surface

Eilis Slater
Writer

In the past few years, there seems to have been a surge in the amount of prominent figures in the media who are opening up about their own struggles with mental health. The increased discussion about these issues came particularly after the tragic death of Robin Williams, a keystone figure of comedy and acting in both television and film productions. On 11 August 2014 the world was rocked by the news that Williams had hung himself in his home – despite having been in treatment for his severe depression and substance abuse problems.

It appears to be a common misconception that once anyone, whether it be a member of the general public, or a celebrity in the eye of the media, has gone into treatment for a mental condition or a course of therapy, that they are suddenly “fixed”. The problem with taking this way of thinking on board is that it can make assumptions that are dangerous for the individual in recovery. Someone recovering from depression may be overcome with guilt if they feel like they cannot match up to the expectations of a family member who just assumes that they are better – this belief system can seriously heighten the chances of a relapse. Depression is a chronic disease and thus relapse should be expected. The ramifications of the public relying on the earlier premise can have a particularly negative effect on those in the media.

One figure in the public eye who has been open about their struggles with mental illness, and how that was emphasised by being in the spotlight, is Demi Lovato. Lovato is a singer, actress and now writer who has battled an eating disorder, depression and self-harm from the age of 10 years old. It was not until she hit rock bottom that she was able to get the treatment she deserved and needed. Since then, she has been open about her diagnosis of bipolar disorder and problems she had concerning self-medication with drugs and alcohol, in the hopes of erasing stigma and raising awareness of these issues. She herself has commented on the dangerous expectations put on those who have been through treatment. In her Stay Strong documentary she comments: “People think you’re like a car in a body shop. You go in, they fix you and you’re out. It doesn’t work like that. It takes constant fixing.”

The point Lovato makes here hits the nail on the head. While, of course, mental illness is a disease and should be treated as such, it naturally does differ from most physical ailments. Most can be fixed with a course of treatment and the patient is fine afterwards. Mental disorders such as depression simply do not work in the same way – they need constant maintenance, that the individual will have to keep on top of for the rest of their life, in order to minimise the possibility of relapse.

Another media figure who is open about their own experiences with mental illness is Ruby Wax. A prominent female comedian known for her one-woman shows, Wax often uses her battles with depression as part of her material to try and eliminate the stigma and make it a topic that is no longer taboo to discuss. In an interview with Time to Change, she gives a rather poignant quote that portrays how common mental disorders really are: “1 in 5 people have dandruff. 1 in 4 people have mental health problems. I’ve had both.”

What Ruby Wax is saying here is so important because in a nutshell, it points out how we talk about dandruff more readily than mental health, when mental health problems are actually more common. Not to trivialise the negative impact that a dry scalp can have on an individual, but surely at least a tad more consideration could be given to the severity of mental illnesses and more effort could be made into drawing attention to what can be done to help those who are suffering from these diseases? Just some food for thought for you.

Going back to Robin Williams, our society failed him. Many others like him too. By going along with these assumptions and expectations laid out by blind ignorance and not speaking up and letting it be known that it is okay to not be perfect all the time, we are enabling the disease and allowing it to win. So just take a moment, and if you know anyone who is suffering from a mental illness, whether it be anxiety, depression or addiction problems, please take a moment to check in and ask them to honestly tell you how they are doing. If they are having a rough time, reassure them that it is okay that they feel the way they do, and they are justified in feeling so. Let them know that you are there for them, and that you have not forgotten that they are coping with something that you might not necessarily understand, but that you will do your very best to try.

Let them know that if they feel like what they are dealing with is getting bad again that they should communicate with you about it and consider going back into treatment. Finally, soothe them and just listen to what they have to say because even if it does not feel like you can help in the way a professional can, you could potentially be preventing a relapse or even the heart-breaking and worst case scenario in which they feel like they have no other option but to take their own life.

Be gentle, be kind. Sometimes, for the moment, that can be enough to save a life.